Look Ahead

D.A. Pennebaker doesn't make history, but he's captured so much of it

The publicist asks if I'd like to speak to D.A. Pennebaker to commemorate the 60th birthday of Bob Dylan, which falls on May 24. She asks this because, during the spring of 1965, Pennebaker made a documentary about Dylan's tour of England, Dont Look Back, which captured a drained, cagey Dylan as he transitioned, uncomfortably, from fame to legend. She asks this because last year, a New York-based home-video company called Docurama re-released Dont Look Back--which is, easily, the most influential rock-and-roll movie, save for This is Spinal Tap--on DVD, complete with a handful of excised musical performances, an alternate take of the infamous cue-card sequence for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and a director's commentary. She asks this because Docurama wants to push the DVD yet again, and any excuse will do; what better reason to do a story on Pennebaker's masterpiece (fine, one of many) than to tie it to the master's turning six-oh? Lord, how tired Pennebaker must be after all these years of being asked, "What was Bob reallylike?" Don't look back. Maybe it's good advice.

Besides, Pennebaker, in certain circles of squares, is every bit as influential and legendary as Dylan. The man who refers to documentary filmmaking as "the obsessive sport" is the fly, and the rest of the world is the wall upon which he perches, camera and microphone in tow but always out of sight. The films he makes alone and with wife Chris Hegedus don't even feel like documentaries. Drop the unsuspecting viewer into a theater screening The War Room (the Oscar-nominated 1993 film that turned the Clinton campaign inside out), Dont Look Backor--the couple's latest, about the torturous birth and quick demise of--and they might even think they're watching the stuff of make-believe--brilliant fiction instead of the cold, hard facts.

There is never a narrator to get in the way; there is no comforting voice of a disembodied celebrity to hold your hand through the narrative. For two hours, more or less, you are allowed into the secret lives and unknown worlds of the famous and the anonymous: the backstage of the rock star, the conference tables of political operatives, the offices of venture capitalists tossing good money after bad in the direction of a startup Web site.

Look back, Dont Look Back: Bob Dylan, in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's most famous film
Look back, Dont Look Back: Bob Dylan, in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's most famous film
Look back, Dont Look Back: Bob Dylan, in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's most famous film
Look back, Dont Look Back: Bob Dylan, in a scene from D.A. Pennebaker's most famous film

"We want to deliver the impression of dropping in on someone else's world," says Hegedus. "That's the basic primal instinct of voyeurism. It's the thing that makes you love to witness what other people go through and kind of empathize with them if possible--or sympathize with them, for that matter. Whichever way you're feeling."

Had Pennebaker made only Dont Look Backor the 1967 Monterey Popconcert film (which contains the famed footage of Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar aflame, quite literally) or The War Room(a home movie in which James Carville and George Stephanopoulos plot the Clinton ascendancy), his legacy would be cemented. He's the Truffaut of the documentary, the Godard of cinema verité; if he didn't invent the form, at the very least he reshaped it in his own image. But the list of films Pennebaker has made over the years, with Hegedus and other collaborators, is a staggering litany of profound, intimate works, be they shorts about a day with his daughter in Central Park (1954's Baby) or the Christmas Day Robert Kennedy and Sammy Davis Jr. spent with New York school children (1964's Jingle Bells) or his long-form chronicles of the backstage goings-on at Broadway shows (1970's Company: Original Cast Albumand, with Hegedus, 1998's Moon Over Broadway, about Carol Burnett's return to the stage).

His filmography (much of which is available for purchase from www.pennebakerhegedusfilms.com) reads like a who's-who of the past four decades. Pennebaker has hung out with the mighty and the fallen; he's the ever-present shadow making public the private moments of people who should have known better. In 1964, he filmed Timothy Leary's wedding to Nena Von Schlebrugge, which became the 12-minute You're Nobody Till Somebody Loves You. In 1971, Pennebaker documented the outrageous women's-lib debate between, among others, Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer at Town Hall in New York City; the film, Town Bloody Hall, sat unreleased for years, until Hegedus came in one day and edited the thing together in, more or less, an hour (it was the fledgling couple's first film together). From 1979 to '81, Pennebaker and Hegedus documented John DeLorean's quest to design the perfect car, which became nothing less than a stainless-steel Edsel. And in 1990, the two released their film about Jerry Lee Lewis, which charted the oft-seedy life of one of rock's pioneers.

But music has long been the filmmakers' fetish; they've spent more time backstage than a thousand groupies, having documented the on- and offstage lives of David Bowie (during his Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars period), Branford Marsalis, Otis Redding, Victoria Williams, Alice Cooper, Suzanne Vega and jazz singer Dave Lambert (of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross) shortly before his unexpected death in 1964. The duo even made what's essentially a companion film to Joel and Ethan Coen's O Brother, Where Art Thou?; titled Down on the Mountain, it captures a bluegrass concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and features renditions of songs that appear in O Brother. But despite the soundtrack's surprising success on country radio, Pennebaker can't find a distributor interested in releasing the film. Like most of his films, Down on the Mountain will likely end up on home video, meaning it will never reach even a small percentage of the audience that would like to see it.

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